Imagine finding a jaguar in Texas. That’s how birders feel come February in Bentsen–Rio Grande State Park, when scads of species otherwise unseeable in the U.S. find shelter or fly through the heart of a group of parks known as the World Birding Center—right on the river border with Mexico (worldbirdingcenter.org). But Bentsen is also a great place simply to hike, camp, or watch for javelinas, bobcats, and armadillos. The park is closed to vehicles other than a tram that hits the trailheads and the campground ($18). Eight miles of footpaths cut through 760 acres of riparian woodlands and lead to the Rio Grande; plus, you can bike the tram road (rentals, $8) and paddle cutoff remnants of the river known as resacas, filled with largemouth bass.
Something unexpected happens after you drive a couple of hours west from Chicago. Pancake flatness yields to undulating hills and broad-leaved forests—some of the most muscular terrain in the Midwest. You’re in Galena Territory, and it’s time to break out your skis. Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa serves up 6,800 acres of this country by way of a dozen miles of XC ski trails that traverse the meadows and woods of four would-be golf courses (inn rooms, $129; villas, $169; eagleridgeresortonline.com). The resort will set you up with skis and ice skates for one of the golf course lakes (gear included in $18 resort fee) or steer you to snowshoe paths that cut through the woods.
In a National Park System increasingly filled with roped-off viewing areas and warning signs posted like trail markers, Mammoth Cave National Park’s Wild Cave Tour is refreshingly, well, wild ($48, nps.gov/maca; cottages, $55; foreverlodging.com). Instead of mood lighting and cornball guides, you’ll find a real-deal, six-hour experience of the world’s longest cave that entails free climbing, hunched duckwalking, and long crawls through openings as slight as nine inches high. Stuck? A ranger will offer some bit of advice like: "Relax, pull your shoulders sideways, flatten your stomach against that slab in front of you, reach your left leg over the rock, and pull yourself up." Helmets and lights are provided. Bring your own soft kneepads and check your claustrophobia at the entrance.
Take a cue from the largest free-roaming elk herd east of the Mississippi and seek refuge in the wild woods of Pigeon River Country State Forest, about half an hour north of Gaylord and 12 miles east of the village of Vanderbilt. You may or may not spot any elk—they’re smart enough to hunker down in winter—but on the Shingle Mill Pathway you’ll see some of the wildest country in the Lower Peninsula (free; gaylordmichigan.net). On ungroomed but signed loops of six, ten, or 11 miles, you’ll flirt with and cross the Pigeon River as it flows through stands of mixed pines and hardwoods. Stoke up on flapjacks at Diana’s Delight in Gaylord before starting out and end your day in a Jacuzzi room at Marsh Ridge Resort (doubles from $69; marshridge.com).